6/23/2021 Sink or Swim
By Adam Loomis - Part-time mountain athlete and full-time ski jumping and Nordic combined coach.
In a broad sense, there are just two ways to learn to swim: jump in over your head, or ease in step-by-step. Anyone with a bit of experience or sense of responsibility will recommend the latter approach. It’s the safer bet, anyways. Slow and steady, they say, without remembering how they got to be the experienced one. Years of learning, yes, but undoubtedly a few headfirst dives along the way. Running is no different.
In the early miles of a recent ultra I was feeling a bit judgmental towards a competitor. Our lead group of four made light conversation as we cruised across rolling high desert trails - free speed before the mercury would skyrocket in the coming hours. The chattiest member of our company was a freshly graduated collegiate runner. As a national-level track runner, this kid had wheels, but his trail experience was just enough for him to have recently acquired his first pair of trail running specific shoes. An hour in, he observed that we probably just have seven-ish hours to go. (The course record stands at 8:23).
“If you run eight hours-today, I’ll buy you a case of beer,” I responded.
“Sounds great!” he answered optimistically.
I thought I was relatively green with just two 50km races under my belt and a couple runs greater than 40 miles prior to this 50-mile race. But in the world of trail running, I had years on this guy.
“I haven’t really figured out how to eat and run… is there a magic number to take in?” he asked.
Better figure that out today bud.
Twenty or so miles into the race, however, my perspective on the Midwest speedster flipped. Rather than continue to scorn his naivety, I had to give him credit for being one gutsy guy. Clearly, he didn’t care what anyone else thought. Fearless, I would say, and that’s not usually a term that is applied to runners.
He was the epitome of diving in headfirst.
Fear can be a real element of trail and ultra-running. For some it’s an impediment, but many use fear as a powerful motivator, and others, like our subject, throw it to the wind. At some point, one must conquer their fear if they want to enter daunting ultra races or dream up inspiring adventures. Sometimes it comes back to bite you, as I have just enough experience to tell you.
All too often, I ride the cycle of feeling inspired, then going too big, fighting soreness, recovering a bit, and then diving back in too soon again. I know this isn’t the ideal model, but it’s how I test my limits, and I’m doing what I love.
Most notably, my first attempt at running 100 miles went south with spoiled sports-drink, an upset stomach, and an overly ambitious route. Seventeen hours in, I ended my adventure at just 60 miles. After this run, I was wrecked for weeks from the stress of the dehydration and many miles of demanding terrain. It was the most I’ve ever asked of my body, but I don’t regret trying.
We learn so very much when we’re in over our heads. Even the most venerable ultra runners in the Nation demonstrate this. Think of Jim Walmsley’s infamous burnout at the 2017 Western States, or Courtney Dewaulter running to the point of partial blindness. That’s not a methodical approach of marginal gains, that’s overcommitting in the best of ways.
Inevitably, the sink-or-swim tactic is seen as heroic when it ultimately leads to results and recognition. I argue that regardless of skill, don’t judge those newbies. If your biker buddy shows up to the weekly trail run with a cycling jersey and baggies, let it be. And your tough-guy friends with a no-calorie, no-water approach - they’ll figure it out.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still recommending that you put your miles in. Do your homework, bide your time, figure out your systems, listen to your body, and all that good stuff in the book of tried-and-true. It’s also important to recognize where extra respect must be shown. Jumping into highly technical mountain terrain is a different animal than a typical trail run, and should be treated as such. But occasionally, some of us need to just say screw it, send it, and hope to swim. You might “fail,” but you’ll certainly learn.
And if you’re lucky enough to witness someone next to you cannonballing in without testing the waters, respect.. and enjoy the show.
As for our courageous track runner, he titled his Strava from that foray into ultrarunning, “Mistake?... well yes, but actually, no.” From the sounds of it, he puked his way through the final 15 miles but still managed to finish in fifth and then afterward, cheerily chalked it up as a learning experience… an understatement if I’ve ever heard one.